Technology in law firms: how COVID-19 is speeding things up
For the lawyer in private practice, much of the current legal marketplace consists of software solutions and technologies that claim to “make the lawyer’s life easier.”
Continuing our series on technology and the law, we now explore what this means for the lawyer in private practice. While many lawyers will already use specialized software for research (such as Westlaw, Lexis), in this article we will focus on specialized software available to help lawyers with managing different aspects of their practice. We have set out four main types of software in the table below, and some examples of those which are popularly used in the region. Some of the software cover more than one category, and the table below is by no means exhaustive.
Interestingly, we have yet to find any specialized hardware solution for lawyers. This is not surprising as hardware requires much larger investments, and the legal sector is relatively small (though if you do know of any, we would love to hear from you).
LEGAL PRACTICE SOFTWARE
Staying on top of a busy law practice, while keeping up with demanding clients is not easy and legal practice software aims to solve the pain point related to various repetitive tasks every lawyer faces. As set out in the table above, the main types of legal software available aim to automate and improve certain functions that lawyers need to deal with on a day to day basis. First and foremost, is timekeeping and billing. While some firms still use Microsoft Excel, more specialized software is available with fancy timers and more friendlier user interfaces for lawyers. The key advantage to this software is that it helps users capture and charge all their billable time with an easy time tracking device, and these are easily integrated with bill generation features. This reduced the steps needed to send out invoices to clients by automatically generating editable invoices using the billable time entered via the time-tracking feature. The end result of better time-recording is that it minimizes billing leakage, which means higher efficiency and profitability.
Beyond just timekeeping and billing, broader practice management software deals with other tasks such as file and case management which help track clients, meetings, and the progress of their files. Another important feature offered would be useful tools for assigning and managing tasks and to-do lists, along with calendar management features. The main advantage of this kind of software is that it can help law firm with enforcing uniformity, consistency, accountability as well as increasing efficiency within the firm.
Increasingly, practice software may also incorporate elements of a CRM system, to help law firms track and grow their clientele, though these can also exist as standalone software.
According to Stephen Lai, Managing Director from Conventus Law, however, the fast-growing area of adoption in legal practice software are tools for contract automation, contract review, and management. These provide built-in organizational systems for documents and document collaboration as well as sharing and electronic signing features for secure external sharing with third parties such as clients, experts and counterparties. While using specialized software to handle these functions is much more efficient than paper based manual systems and helps avoids problems such as lost originals, the software is maturing beyond just a glorified tracking system and some will have AI-enabled features to help do the initial contract reviews and analysis. This kind of software claims to be able to review, categorize, and analyse thousands of documents at speeds no human can match, which makes this the most exciting space to watch in legal practice software today.
THE EFFECT OF COVID-19
While Hong Kong – like many other places - has seen a general upward growth in the adoption of legal technologies, the current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly helped to accelerate that trend in particular areas. As many lawyers have been forced to work from home for the past few months, the need for existing online collaboration and communication tools has accelerated astronomically during this pandemic.
While an obvious example of this might be the use of Cisco WebEx or Zoom video conferencing software and online webinars, another one is e-signing software. As Hsiang Low, Managing Associate and Co-Head of Nakhoda-Asia from Linklaters, noted in this current environment, e-signing software, which has existed for a long period of time, has only recently seen an exponential increase in adoption. And once the technology has been adopted, and clients have grown comfortable with using it, it is likely to stay with us long after the pandemic has subsided. According to Mr Low, “The increased usage of electronic signatures by our clients is just one example of technology adoption driven by what is happening around us. We will see a growing trend in the adoption of other collaborative and online technologies as the world adapts to the current situation.”
But as we are finding out quickly, adopting new technology can be a double-edged sword. During a webinar surrounding the topic of ‘Professional Firms and Tech: Navigating Tech Adoption & Cybersecurity Trends,’ in which Sebastian Ko, an outspoken proponent of legal innovation, noted that while technologies supporting remote work have quickly proven their value, by for instance saving a lot of traveling time – online meetings can sometimes be more exhausting than in-person ones.
Davyd Wong is the General Counsel at Star Anise. He is also the Co-founder of the Hong Kong Centre for Pro Bono Service Ltd, is a current member of the Law Society of Hong Kong’s Pro Bono Committee, and a director of the Hong Kong Association of Corporate Counsel.
Rasminna Roslin is the Recruitment Researcher at Star Anise.
The authors are grateful to Stephen Lai (Managing Director from Conventus Law), Hsiang Low (Managing Associate and Co-Head of Nakhoda-Asia from Linklaters) and Sebastian Ko (Lawyer and LegalTech Specialist) who shared their time and perspectives on this topic. Any views expressed in this article are, however, personal to those of the authors as is responsibility for any errors or omissions.
Footnotes (for further reading)
 Sebastian Ko, Lawyer and LegalTech Specialist (April 2020). “Would Hong Kong COVID relief funding fan flames of legal innovation? Three key questions,” SebKo. Accessible Here.
 Sebastian Ko, Lawyer and LegalTech Specialist (June 2020). “Tech Adoption, Cybersecurity, and Professional Services Firms: 2020 Mid-Year Review,” SebKo. Accessible Here.
 Davyd Wong, General Counsel, and Rasminna Roslin, Researcher, (June 2020). “Legal technology and in-house counsels today,” Star Anise Legal: Legal Tech Article Series. Accessible Here.